Are Disturbed Characters and Manipulators Everywhere?

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The intensely socially repressive atmosphere of earlier times has been supplanted with an atmosphere of entitlement, permissiveness, and license. So it’s not surprising that it’s now more common for folks to lack enough shame or guilt to inhibit them from setting out to harm or manipulate others. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that significantly disturbed characters are everywhere.

Ever since I wrote my first book, In Sheep’s Clothing, I have routinely received emails from folks across the globe with questions about what I term the covert-aggressive personality type. (See “Beware the Covert-Aggressive Personality”.) Recently, I’ve had an unusual number of such inquiries. After sifting through them, it appears many blog and book readers have two main questions:

  • “When I end up giving in or doing something I really don’t want to do, does that always mean that someone has intentionally manipulated me?”
  • “There are so many people in my life who give me grief, does that mean that the world is full of covert-aggressive and other character-disturbed personalities?”

With regard to the first question, it’s important to remember that just because someone does or says something that manipulates you (i.e., prompts you to do something you really don’t want to do), doesn’t necessarily mean that they did it to manipulate you (i.e., intentionally put one over on you). One person gave an example of their mother-in-law, who always seemed to have a terrible headache when the family was trying to get her to do something and therefore ended up controlling the situation whenever they were trying to plan activities. There are many possibilities in such a situation, such as a purely coincidental and genuine headache that unfortunately and unintentionally ends up disrupting plans, a headache with psychogenic origins that has the “secondary gain” of avoiding undesirable or unpleasant situations, and, of course, an illegitimate headache intentionally feigned to manipulate an outcome. It’s always difficult to be certain about someone’s intentions. Fortunately, the “tools of personal empowerment” I advocate in my writings (see “The Secrets of Personal Empowerment”) can help anyone assert their rights, define appropriate limits and boundaries, and gain better control over situations regardless of the “intentions” of others. So, as I indicate as one of the fundamental means of empowerment, it’s important to pay little attention to the presumed intentions of others and to focus instead on meeting your own needs.

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Answering the second question accurately is a bit more challenging. As the formal title of my most recent book asserts, Character Disturbance is indeed “the phenomenon of our age.” That’s because the intensely socially repressive atmosphere of earlier times has been supplanted with an atmosphere of entitlement, permissiveness, and license. It’s not as common for people’s shame and guilt to be so unreasonably intense and unyielding that they become pathologically debilitated with anxiety. Rather, it’s more common for folks to lack enough shame or guilt to inhibit them from doing harmful things to themselves as well as others. So, it would be fair to say that character disturbance is indeed more prevalent these days, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that significantly disturbed characters are everywhere.

Aggressive behaviors of all types are more prevalent these days, too. In our daily lives, we spend far more time and energy fighting for the things we want than we do running from the things we fear. What matters most is how we conduct our bids to get our needs met. Fair, principled, and disciplined fighting is the very definition of self-assertion, and assertive behavior is the epitome of psychological health. But some folks fight indiscriminately, excessively, and for illegitimate purpose. I have written about the folks whose very personality is defined by an inordinate penchant for this kind of behavior in a prior article (see “Understanding the Aggressive Personalities”). It’s also common for folks to fight underhandedly, deceptively, and in a strictly self-serving manner while simultaneously trying to look good (i.e., to engage in “covert-aggression”). That kind of fighting always causes problems. Still, occasionally engaging in covert-aggression doesn’t make someone a covert-aggressive personality. I addressed that issue in an Ask the Psychologist article awhile back: “Am I a Covert-Aggressive Personality?“. When the desire to manipulate and control defines the primary way they relate to others, it bespeaks a particular pathology of their personality. And when such a desire is coupled with a complete lack of conscience, empathy, or remorse, and prompts the repeated callous, senseless use and abuse of others, it often signals the presence of a condition far more serious, namely psychopathy (see “Psychopathy 101”).

Despite the many positive comments and testimonials I’ve received over the years, and despite the large number of books written on similar topics since my first book came out, the plethora of questions people still have on these topics attests to how difficult it can be at times to accurately judge the nature of problem situations. Hopefully, this article will help answer some of the questions some might have about covert-aggression and the phenomenon of character disturbance.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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